Portland just keeps getting more crowded, with ballooning rents pushing low-income people to the periphery or out of the city entirely. And unless the city makes substantial changes, the situation is likely to get worse, with more than 100,000 people expected to move to Portland by 2035. Zoning laws, which favor single-family dwellings over density, are a big reason why we’re in our current state. For years, housing advocates have been pushing for a project that would legalize duplexes, triplexes, and four-plexes in single-family zones, and felt progress was being made. However, they were shocked a few weeks ago when Mayor Ted Wheeler candidly told the Portland Tribune that the city council’s vote on the project would be delayed by several months. “I’m in no rush,” he said.
The delayed Residential Infill Project (with the unfortunate acronym RIP) is meant to incrementally increase density in Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods—those that are close to major centers or near public transit. Housing advocates believe it’s an important step to increasing population density in low-density neighborhoods. Every moment without RIP, they say, is a wasted opportunity during which more old homes will be demolished and replaced with pricey McMansions—a one-to-one replacement that only encourages gentrification without increasing the city’s housing stock.
RIP incentivizes building more housing units instead of bigger ones, while capping the size of these new units to 2,500 square feet for a single-family home—much less than the currently allowed size of 6,750 square feet. It also legalizes and encourages multi-unit housing, and it’s flexible: Developments can be four-plexes, a duplex with a backyard Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), or a house renovated to become several apartments.
This potential for increased density is why advocates were so angry to hear that Wheeler delayed a city council vote on RIP. Some even created memes about Wheeler’s “I’m in no rush” comment, furious that his views on the city’s housing crisis appeared so lackadaisical. But as it turned out, Wheeler wasn’t dragging his feet—instead, the policy was slowed down by an extended period of review by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC), which delayed the city council vote.
“The way [information was released] made a lot of people think it was the mayor slowing this down—but nope, it’s the process itself,” says Joe Zehnder, a city planner working on RIP. He says PSC is digging deep into the project—which is why they’re still reviewing it long after PSC was scheduled to vote on the proposal in June. The PSC is now expected to finish with RIP sometime in September, at which point city staff will need to write the policy into code before it can go before council. And while the process may be taking much longer than expected, city officials believe the changes being made by PSC should have housing advocates cheering.
A few of the major changes from PSC include expanding RIP to areas east of 82nd, legalizing four-plexes on all lots, and implementing a tiered system of extra square footage that will be given to developers who build more units: 2,500 for single units, 3,000 for two units, and 3,500 for three or four units on a 5,000 square foot lot. Another addition is a significant square foot bonus for lots with at least one affordable unit—currently that’s the only RIP policy related to affordability.
These ideas didn’t come out of thin air—housing advocacy groups lobbied for the tiered system. “There were a couple of times where people specifically mentioned [housing advocacy group] Portland for Everyone in comments they made during discussions,” says Andrés Oswill, a member of PSC. Portland for Everyone shared its RIP goals—like expanding the project to cover nearly the entire city—with supporters, and many of those concepts became talking points for the PSC, Oswill says. “It’s easier to take input that is very specific,” he adds.
However, there are those who oppose the project, especially neighborhood associations like those in Laurelhurst and Eastmoreland, which argue that RIP could ruin their neighborhood’s “character” and reduce street parking—even though, according to early estimates, the project may only end up creating 1,713 new housing units within the next 20 years. (These estimates don’t include four-plexes or extra development space for additional units—provisions only recently added to the plan—so it remains unclear whether those changes will further tempt developers to pursue RIP projects.)
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, a staunch RIP supporter, doesn’t believe RIP will lead to overcrowded Portland neighborhoods.
“The more historic neighborhoods are actually less dense than ever, because those big old homes previously housed larger families and multi-generational households,” she says. “So this idea that everyone is going to be rubbing elbows in Eastmoreland if we let them build more ADUs and duplexes is dubious.”
Others argue that the project could hurt low-income renters.
“RIP just tries to incentivize, but refuses to mandate affordable housing,” says Meg Hanson, a member of the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources. “There is no housing crisis, there is only an affordable housing crisis,” she says, pointing to vacancies in new luxury apartment developments. Hanson argues that RIP will incentivize the demolition of small, older rental homes because they’re the “low-hanging fruit for development.” Replacing inexpensive housing with expensive housing—even if there are more units per lot—just displaces poor renters, she says. She’d rather keep all the older rental homes in Portland because they’re naturally more affordable.
Portland State University land-use planning professor Marisa Zapata agrees that RIP, as currently written, won’t necessarily assist low-income renters.
“You’re not helping someone under median family income,” she says.
That said, Zapata still believes RIP is worth pursuing, because it could create more housing choices and slow the pace of rent increases in the overall market. While she agrees the project could potentially displace a few individuals, she doubts the problem will be systemic. Besides, Zapata says, Portland’s options are limited, especially since so much of the land is zoned for single-family housing.
She says the solution to displacement is for the city to focus on better renter protections, instead of saving specific rentals.
“I think all neighborhoods should be in [RIP], but renter protections should also be in the policy, like right to return,” she says, referring to a policy that would give renters the chance to rent a unit on the same lot for the same price after the property is redeveloped. An even better result, she says, would be the city “buying you one of the triplexes” if you’re displaced.
She adds that Portland needs to be braver about pursuing projects that will help renters and low-income homeowners stay in place.
“Build the affordable unit. And if the developer doesn’t want to do it, they pay a fee so the city can do it,” she says.
While the PSC isn’t including specific renter protections, they could come into play once RIP goes before city council. Eudaly wants to create a kind of city-backed loan to help low-income homeowners build ADUs—the little apartments people put in their backyards, garages, and attics. “That could deliver the benefits of RIP significantly further down the income spectrum,” she says, noting that the program could be paired with assisting homeowners with outstanding code violations. As for renters, “[I am] all ears as far as tenant protections and anti-displacement measures go,” she says.
Whatever the solution, advocates say that increasing density is the best option for Portland’s future, unless we want to become little more than a tourist destination or “a playground for the rich,” as Mayor Wheeler says.
“Does [Portland] want to consume more farmland and protected forestland?” Zapata asks. “If you don’t want to do that, you have to fill in and grow up.”